Watch for home repair fraud, scams

March 07, 2003|by LYNN F. LITTLE

Year after year, home repair problems make the top of the list for consumer complaints. Poor workmanship, disagreements on contracts, inferior materials and incomplete or late work all add to the frustration, but the most devious and harmful are outright frauds. These frauds tend to increase in the early spring when many home repairs are started.

Door-to-door con artists travel in groups in pickup trucks, in vans or on foot during daylight hours. Frequently, they observe their potential victims a day or more prior to the actual encounter. They may pose as repairmen or utility inspectors to enter a victim's home.

Itinerant workers known as "travelers" offer bargain prices for home repairs. They typically claim to have done work in the past for the victim or to have just finished a job and have left-over materials, or they may say that they just happened to notice a problem with your house that needs immediate attention. After quoting a low price, travelers intimidate their victims into paying much more after the work is completed. Common frauds include those involving roofing, asphalt paving, tree trimming and painting.


Often in these cases, work performed, if any, is shoddy and will not last. Travelers often prey on the same victims year after year. Police reports indicate travelers may also steal money or other valuables from the victim's home during the repair.

Here are some ways to protect yourself:

  • Beware of door-to-door contractors who use high-pressure or scare tactics to get you to make an immediate decision. Don't do business with someone who comes to your door offering a bargain because he says he has material remaining from another job.

  • Be observant and alert for strange pickup trucks, vans and cars cruising or parked in your neighborhood.

  • Take note of work being done on neighbor's homes. Watch for strangers walking down the street with buckets and ladders or going door-to-door.

  • Write down the license plate numbers of suspicious vehicles. Also note the make, model and color of the vehicles. If you suspect a crime is in progress, phone 911 but do not approach the perpetrators yourself.

  • Obtain at least three written bids for work you want done. Don't automatically choose the lowest bidder.

  • Don't hire a stranger until you have thoroughly checked references.

  • Don't pay the whole amount before the work is completed to your satisfaction. You should pay no more than 25 to 50 percent up front.

  • Call your city or county licensing bureau to verify that the contractor is licensed. Don't do business with an unlicensed contractor.

  • Ask for proof that the contractor is bonded, carries liability insurance and covers his workers with workers compensation insurance.

  • The contractor's business card should have a verifiable street address and office phone number. Be cautious of those with only post office boxes and answering machines or pagers.

  • Call the Better Business Bureau or the local office of consumer affairs for a report on the contractor.

  • Require the contractor to use a written contract that lists materials to be used, as well as charges, costs and the completion date.

  • Never rely on someone to explain parts of an agreement unless it is someone you know and trust. Read the fine print for yourself. Never sign anything without carefully checking it. Be sure you understand and agree to all provisions in a contract or agreement.

  • Don't make final payment until you've received a "lien waiver" that shows the contractor has paid his subcontractors and suppliers - unpaid workers or vendors could put a lien on your home.

Lynn F. Little is extension coordinator with Family and Consumer Services of the Maryland Cooperative Extension in Washington County.

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